Jarrar settlement promotes security in civil aviation while protecting civil liberties

Nusrat Jahan Choudhury [Attorney, Karpatkin Fellow, American Civil Liberties Union]: "A year and a half after the American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Raed Jarrar, the defendants - two Transportation Security Administration officials and JetBlue Airways - agreed to pay him $240,000 to settle his claims that they discriminated against him on the basis of his racial and ethnic background and violated his First Amendment rights.

This settlement is a victory. Even absent a court judgment, it marks progress in the fight to promote safety and security in civil aviation while protecting the civil rights and liberties that are the hallmark of this country.

When TSA and JetBlue officials prevented Mr. Jarrar from boarding his flight at John F. Kennedy Airport until he covered his t-shirt, they treated him differently from all of the other passengers in the gate area. When JetBlue decided to move Mr. Jarrar from his seat in row 3 to the back of the airplane, it once again singled him out for differential treatment.

Why? Ostensibly because other passengers had expressed concern about what he wore: an ordinary black t-shirt that featured the sentence "We Will Not Be Silent" in Arabic and English.

The lawsuit revealed, however, that neither the TSA officials involved nor JetBlue could identify a single passenger who had supposedly been "concerned" by Mr. Jarrar's t-shirt. Nor had they inquired whether the nature of any purported "concern" was based on a legitimate reason or an illegitimate racial bias, perhaps grounded in the stereotyping of Mr. Jarrar as a "terrorist" simply because he is Arab and wore a shirt with Arabic script. The lawsuit also revealed that the defendants took their actions even though they did not consider Mr. Jarrar to pose a security threat.

Mr. Jarrar was nevertheless singled out for differential treatment. And according to him, not only did JetBlue and two TSA officials make it clear that he would be unable to fly unless he covered his t-shirt, one TSA official told Mr. Jarrar that wearing a shirt with Arabic script on it was akin to "wearing a t-shirt at a bank stating, 'I am a robber.'"

The t-shirt that Mr. Jarrar wore on August 12, 2006, reflected who he is - an Iraqi-born U.S. resident and a vocal critic of the war in Iraq. Its "We Will Not Be Silent" message was coined by student peace activists challenging the rise of Nazism before World War II. That the t-shirt featured this message in both English and Arabic, Mr. Jarrar's native language, further reflected Mr. Jarrar's identity as an Arab immigrant to the United States.

Requiring Mr. Jarrar to cover his t-shirt and moving him to the back of the plane did nothing to promote safety or security. It did, however, relegate him to the status of a second-class citizen for being and expressing who he is.

This incident underscores that ordinary, law-abiding Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, South Asians, and people perceived to be of these backgrounds continue to experience differential treatment by airlines and government officials when engaging in air travel - even though they do nothing to warrant heightened security scrutiny.

This treatment is unacceptable. In our country, diversity, inclusiveness, and a commitment to equality and liberty are defining characteristics and rank among our greatest strengths.

Mr. Jarrar courageously challenged the racial profiling he experienced and the infringement of his First Amendment rights by filing a lawsuit. The settlement of his claims for a landmark sum of $240,000 sends a clear message: airlines and government officials cannot discriminate against passengers based on their race or the ethnic content of their speech.

We have the ability to promote security in air travel while protecting rights to freedom of speech and freedom from racial discrimination protected by the Constitution and civil rights laws. When airlines and government officials fail to respect these rights, they should be held accountable."

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